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Two Weeks to Take Back Our Food System: Why FSMA matters & how to take action NOW!

on November 4, 2013

This post is from Katie Blanchard, aspiring farmer and Real Food Challenge Coordinator. Follow her on Twitter.

On November 15, time is up on public participation in the first modernization of food safety standards in the US since the 1930s.

Signed into law in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) tasked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with creating rules for implementing the law. The proposed rules are currently open for public comment.

Wondering what I’m even talking about? You’re not alone.

Put most simply, we’re talking about hundreds of pages written in Washington that mean hundreds of potential regulations for 40,000 farms around the country. 35,000 of those farms grow just 14% of the produce regulated by FSMA, but could incur between 40-70% of the associated costs. Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the rules could “destroy some operations.”

Since the legislation passed, the proposed implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act has received very little attention outside of sustainable agriculture advocates -- despite the serious implications these rules could have for farmers and consumers alike -- especially young people. We will inherit the food and farming system these rules will shape, unless we speak up to shape them.

The rules are confusing -- which is a central problem with them. They place the bulk of responsibility on farmers, and especially small farmers -- to control for the sort of foodborne disease outbreak that is rarely linked to small farms or short, community-based supply chains.

What is not confusing, however, is the food system these rules will uphold and further institutionalize. Namely, a system that prioritizes technology and the industrial farming that can afford it. A system that removes decision-making about farming and food from farmers and consumers, and places it with regulatory agencies located farther and farther from food production.

The proposed rules concern water, compost, manure, training, and definitions and requirements that could regulate many basic farming practices and farm business activities in expensive and onerous ways. But ultimately, the rules are are about power and fear and profit. There is likely a lot of money to be made in implementing rules that prioritize technology and remove people from production processes. The more distance between producers and consumers, the greater the potential for misunderstanding and fear about where food comes from and what it takes to grow it.

“What we are now facing,” writes Pennsylvania sustainable agriculture leader Brian Snyder, “is not just the potential presence or absence of pathogens in our food, but the question of who will be responsible for our food in the future, how it will be grown, and under what authority.”

The future? That’s our future. That’s the future where I’d like new, small-scale, community-based farmers to be able to raise animals and grow vegetables and make bread or jelly without racking up unreasonable debt or causing a regulatory kerfuffle.

In fact, I’d like to be well-past that. I’d like to be able to have a diversified, ecological farming operation without fear of regulatory recompense, so that we can work on creating all the other things that resilient, local food systems need -- like innovative processing and distribution, and living wages along the whole food chain, and ways for everyone to have access to the healthy, tasty food they want to eat.

What’s on the table with the proposed FSMA rules is not whether or not our food supply will be safe and healthy. What’s on the table is who gets to make decisions about how food is produced. What’s on the table is whether we get to grow and eat food with hands and friends and neighbors, and afford to experiment and innovate for fair, sustainable supply chains and businesses in our communities -- or not.

“We’re always looking to make sure our food is healthy and safe,” writes my young, beginning farmer friend Hannah Breckbill. “We believe that small farms are part of the solution to healthy, safe food–not part of the problem!”

FSMA is being called a lot of things -- troublesome, devastating, urgent, historic. These are the same words I hear young farmers and food system change-makers use all the time to describe the food system. Let’s add another descriptor to this process: ours. This is about our future food and farming system. This is about all of us.

What can you do:

  • Read up on the proposed rules and submit comments! National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a stellar guide to the rules, and instructions for commenting.
  • Search #fixFSMA for further commentary about potential impacts of the rules
  • Spread the word -- share this post, tweet #fixFSMA, talk to your friends and farmers and fellow eaters. National Young Farmers Coalition members have hosted comment-writing parties around the country. There’s still time to join them!

And if you haven't already -- check out our Real Food, Our Future campaign. Let's fix FSMA and support a real food future for all!

Thanks to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Young Farmers Coalition, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and Brian Snyder of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, for invaluable research, commentary, and clarification of the FSMA rules, what they could mean, and what we can do. Written with support from Northwest Regional Field Organizer Sofie Sherman-Burton.